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Fighting Homelessness, or Fighting the Homeless?

Martha Bridegam investigates the aftermath of a forced eviction at a homeless encampment in San Francisco. Do the homeless deserve to be criminalized?
November 24, 2012, 7am PST | Ryan Lue
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In what has become something of a business-as-usual approach to chronic homelessness, authorities in San Francisco broke up a community of campers residing under a freeway ramp last August.

It was what Kevin Fagan of the San Francisco Chronicle described as "a sprawling mini-city of tents, suitcases and makeshift Conestoga wagon-style trailers, and a 50-strong homeless population that had been there for years. It was the biggest street camp in San Francisco." And while the community was given 72 hours' notice to vacate, those who refused had many of their personal belongings confiscated and destroyed.

As Bridegam points out, the effort has not done much to remediate the problem, either for the residents of the camp or the surrounding neighborhood. "After the raid the camp re-formed, but smaller and under heavier weekly harassment."

"I think our officials justify clearances of camps, and conventionally housed neighbours accept them, out of civic perfectionism. They presume informal housing can't really be necessary, not in the prosperous United States. Taking comfort from the existence of government and NGO services for homeless people, they assume these services can meet all homeless people's needs — hence that informal housing is a choice made by people who refuse to be helped."

But homelessness is a complex and varied problem, short-term for some, chronic for others. And the sheer volume, the untold millions of Americans that endure long nights of harsh conditions and police harrassment is evidence enough for Bridegam that "they can't all be suffering defects of character or logic. For them, informal housing must be the best bad deal available."

Instead, Bridegam advocates a more cooperative, constructive perspective. "It's a circular problem: there will always be complaints about crime and sanitation at an informal community if authorities approach these problems not as governance and civil engineering challenges common to every human settlement but as proof that the camp must be removed."

"Although unauthorised settlements have legitimacy problems everywhere, it's inspiring to consider that in some parts of the developing world, informally housed people count as 'residents'" and, by extension, neighbors.

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Published on Tuesday, November 20, 2012 in The Global Urbanist
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